'I'm curious about the early Christians'
Dr. Ryan Schellenberg loves teaching the New Testament - particularly (to his surprise) Paul
When you ask Ryan Schellenberg why he left a job he enjoyed at Fresno Pacific University and moved across the country to join the faculty of MTSO, he doesn’t have an answer. He has three.
“First,” he said, “I’ll be working with seminary students rather than undergraduates – people with a little bit more academic background and, more important, people who are already focused on ministry and are thinking theologically about how reading the Bible might inform church ministry. That’s quite different from having a bunch of college freshmen in one’s classroom who are being forced to take Introduction to the Bible. The second thing is that an institution like this will give me more scope to pursue the research I love and that shapes my teaching. And then finally, like Fresno, the MTSO community shares my commitment to social justice and seeing what God’s kingdom looks like worked out in practical, concrete terms.”
Schellenberg was appointed assistant professor of New Testament, effective July 1. He arrived at MTSO after four years at Fresno Pacific, where he was assistant professor and program director of Biblical and Religious Studies. In 2013, he won the Inspirational Teacher Award from Fresno Pacific’s chapter of the Alpha Chi Honor Society.
“We’re excited to bring such an energetic and thoughtful scholar to campus,” said MTSO President Jay Rundell. “Dr. Schellenberg will guide our students in taking a fresh look at the texts that shape our work as religious leaders.”
Raised Mennonite in Hepburn, Saskatchewan, Schellenberg earned his Ph.D. from the University of St. Michael’s College in the University of Toronto, his Master of Arts in New Testament at Mennonite Brethren Biblical Seminary and his B.A. at Canadian Mennonite University.
“Rather than quitting school and getting a real job like most of my peers, I just kept going back,” he said with a smile. “I just kept being curious about what the early Christians were up to.”
Schellenberg is the author of Rethinking Paul’s Rhetorical Education: Comparative Rhetoric and 2 Corinthians 10-13, published by the Society of Biblical Literature. The recent monograph was awarded the 2015 F.W. Beare Award, presented by the Canadian Society of Biblical Studies in recognition of an outstanding book in the areas of Christian origins, post-biblical Judaism or Greco-Roman religions. He also has had peer-reviewed articles published in such respected periodicals as the Journal of Biblical Literature and Catholic Biblical Quarterly.
Much of Schellenberg’s writing involves the work of Paul, which would have surprised his younger self: “At the master’s level, I was particularly interested in the Gospel of Luke, largely because in Luke, social issues and particularly economic justice are right at the fore of the text. I thought of Paul as being too doctrinaire to be of very much practical use. But I took a seminar in my doctoral studies called Paul: Biographical Problems, and approaching Paul as a human being, as a real person, and asking questions about him as an individual, opened up the study of Paul to me in a way that I had not imagined. Who is this person? Why does he think the way he does? What is going on not just in his brain but in him as a whole human person?”
In Rethinking Paul’s Rhetorical Education, Schellenberg swims against the tide of much scholarly speculation about Paul’s social status and education.
“A number of scholars have argued that since Paul’s letters look relatively rhetorically sophisticated, he must have had formal education, which means he must have been relatively well-off since your average folk didn’t get rhetorical education in the ancient world,” he said. “By using cross-cultural rhetorical comparison, I try to show that all of his rhetorical strategies can also be found among speakers who we know had no training in Western rhetoric and aren’t even a part of the heritage of Greek and Roman culture. That sets me up to try to challenge more directly the idea that Paul had a relatively wealthy background.”
Schellenberg contends that our assumptions about Paul’s wealth or lack thereof are important: “My suspicion is that most scholars studying Paul, who themselves are in positions of privilege, tend to imagine that the people who have something worthwhile to say are also in positions of privilege. I think it’s a useful corrective to consider that Paul was actually a manual laborer with informal education and is nevertheless worth attending to.”
Currently, he is writing a paper – “the shorthand I use for it is ‘Paul in Poverty’” – to be presented in November at the annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature.
“The argument that when Paul asks people to be generous he must be speaking with relatively wealthy people is one I’m not persuaded by,” he said. “I’m trying to use ethnographic and anthropological literature to defend my intuition that poor people are generous, too, and Paul could have been inviting people to be generous who weren’t in fact well-off.”
Longer term, Schellenberg is studying how Paul’s time in prison shaped the opinion of him among those in Greco-Roman society: “We, of course, look back on Paul as a prisoner of conscience, sort of like we see Martin Luther King Jr. But it’s anachronistic to imagine the average Greek or Roman would have seen him in those terms.”
“Given the realities of life in the United States, I’m thinking about early Christian experiences of prison with an eye to how such research might inform a Christian response to mass incarceration.”
As a teacher, Schellenberg wants to help students consider the difference between ancient and modern contexts – without using that difference to marginalize early Christian writing: “We don’t want to read those texts in isolation from their contexts, but neither should we lock them in the ancient world so that they’re no good to us in the present. We and they are different in all kinds of ways. The trick is to think critically about both similarities and differences, and then consider how we might take something from the past and translate it into our present reality.”
He’ll expect his students to do that thinking while carefully considering the primary texts, rather than relying too heavily on subsequent scholars’ abstracts: “I think it’s really important that we’re not just reading about the Bible or about what Greeks and Romans and Jews thought about things, but that we’re actually encountering them in their own words.”
Schellenberg is still encountering MTSO, getting a sense of the campus and its people. But already, he feels a kinship.
“It is really clear right from the outset that people are committed to the connection between academic work and social practice. That’s clear in conversations with faculty, where I see other faculty talking about how what they do academically and in the classroom connects with a vision for the world. But it’s also clear in things the school itself is doing, from the solar panels to the farm. I’m impressed by that and excited to be a part of it.”
Methodist Theological School in Ohio prepares leaders of many faith traditions for lives of lasting significance in service to the church and the world. In addition to the Master of Divinity degree, the school offers master’s degrees in counseling ministries, theological studies and practical theology, along with a Doctor of Ministry degree.
Danny Russell, director of communications